American Dream

Director: Barbara Kopple

Institute History

  • 1991 Sundance Film Festival


Thirteen years after her Academy Award-winning Harlan County, USA., Kopple has produced another brilliantly original inquiry into the American social and political landscape. For over six years she has documented the course of a strike by the workers of Local P-9 of the International Union of Meat Cutters. In the small town of Austin, Minnesota, the Hormel Company imposed a substantial wage reduction on the fifteen hundred workers in its meat-packing plant. Coming in the midst of the Reagan era, the cuts were a shock to the expectations of middle-class, union wage earners who had come to believe in an ever-improving standard of living and a comfortable life. The reductions provoked the union into a strike which management clearly had anticipated and was ready to deal with at any cost.

But American Dream is not a black-and-white story of the injustices of corporate America. What emerges from the struggle is a strategic battle within the union itself, which pits the local against the international and fragments the union. The American labor movement has entered a new era in the eighties and nineties; the question it faces is whether it can ever again be truly effective.

Kopple's film is not, however, a dry examination or an ideological call to arms. It is a passionate and moving portrait of the coldhearted consequences of the strife for individual workers and their families. Their small town is tragically torn apart, scaring forever the intimate fraternity which constitutes American social life by pitting brother against brother, and friend against friend, in a no-win situation. The powerlessness of people to control what happens to them is depressingly real. American Dream taps into the collective psyche of a society in a critical period fighting to avert a bleak destiny.

— Geoffrey Gilmore

Screening Details

Sundance Film Festival Awards

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